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We are told by Cumberland, that rectitude, applied to action or contemplation, is merely metaphorical; and that as a right line describes the shortest passage from point to point, so a right action effects a good design by the fewest means; and so likwise a right opinion is that which connects distant truths by the shortest train of intermediate propositions.
To find the nearest way from truth to truth, or from purpose to effect, not to use more instruments where fewer will be sufficient, not to move by wheels and levers what will give way to the naked hand, is the great proof of a healthful and vigorous mind, neither feeble with helpless ignorance, nor overburdened with unwieldly knowledge.
But there are men who seem to think nothing so much the characteristic of a genius, as to do common things in an uncommon manner, like Hudibras, to tell the clock by Algebra ; or like the lady in Dr. Young's Satires, to drink tea by stratagem: to quit the beaten track only because it is known, and take a new path, however crooked or rough, because the straight was found out before.
Every man speaks and writes with intent to be understood, and it can seldom happen but he that understands himself might convey his notions to another, if, content to be understood, he did not seek to be admired; but wlien once he begins to contrive how his sentiments may be received, not with most ease to his reader, but with most advantage to himself, he then transfers his consideration from words to sounds, from sentences to periods, and as he grows more elegant becomes less intelligible.
It is difficult to enumerate every species of authors whose labours counteract themselves; the man of exuberance and copiousness, who diffuses every thought through so many diversities of expression, that it is lost like water in a mist; the ponderous dictator of sentences, whose notions are delivered in the lump, and are, like uncoined bullion, of more weight than use; the liberal illustrator, who shows by examples and comparisons what was clearly seen when it was first proposed; and the stately son of demonstration, who proves with mathematical formality what no man has yet pretended to doubt.
There is a mode of style for which I know not that the masters of oratory have yet found a name; a style by which the most evident truths are so obscured that they can no longer be perceived, and the most familiar propositions so disguised that they cannot be known. Every other kind of eloquence is the dress of sense; but this is a mask by which a true master of his art will so effectually conceal it, that a
man will as easily mistake his own positions, if he meets them thus transformed, as he may pass in a masquerade his nearest acquaintance.
This style may be called the terrific, for its chief intention is to terrify and amaze; it may be termed the repulsive, for its natural effect is to drive away the reader; or it may be distinguished in plain English, by the denomination of the bugbear style, for it is more terrour than danger, and will appear less formidable as it is more nearly approached.
A mother tells her infant, that two and two make four; the child remembers the proposition, and is able to count four to all the purposes of life, till the course of his education brings him among philosophers, who fright him from his former knowledge, by telling him, that four is a certain asgregate of units; that all numbers being only the repetition of an unit, which, though not a number itself, is tl.e parent, root, or original of all number, four is the denomination assigned to a certain number of such repetitions. The only danger is, lest, when he first hears these dreadful soun's, the pupil should run away; if he bes but the courage to stay till the conclusion, lie will find that, when speculation has done its worst, two and two still make four.
An illustrious example of this species of cloquence may be found in Letters concerning Mind." The author begins by declaring, that "the sorts of things are things that now are, have been, and shall be, and the thirgs that strictly ARE.” In this position, except the last clause, in which he uses something of the scholastic language, there is nothing but what every man has beard and imagines himself to know. But who would not believe that some wonderful novelty is presented to his intellect, when lie is afterwards told, in the true bugbear style, that “the ares, in the former sense, are things that lie between the have-beens and shall-bes. The have-beens are things that are past; the shall-bes are things that are to come; and the things that are, in the lulter sense, are things that have not been, por shall be, nor stand in the midst of such as are before them, or shall be after them. The things that have been, and shall be, have respect to present, past, and future. Those likewise that now ARE have moreover place; that, for instance, which is here, that which is to the east, that which is to the west.”
All this, my dear reader, is very strange; but though it be strange, it is not new; survey these wonderful sentences again, and they will be found to contain nothing more than very plain truths, which, till this author arose, lad always been delivered in plain language.
No. 37. SATURDAY, December 30, 1758.
THOSE who are skilled in the extraction and preparation of metals, declare, that iron is every where to be found ; and that not only its proper ore is copiously treasured in the caverns of the earth, but that its particles are dispersed throughout all other bodies.
If the extent of the human view could comprehend the whole frame of the universe, I believe it would be found invariably true, that Providence has given that in greatest plerty, which the condition of life makes of greatest usc; and that nothing is penuriously imparteil or placed far from the reach of man, of which a more liberal distribution, or more easy acquisition, would increase real and rational felicity.
Iron is common, and gold is rarc. Iron contributes so much to supply the wants of nature, that its use constitutes much of the difference between savage and polished life, between the state of hin that slumbers in European palaces, and him that shelters himself in the cavities of a rock from the chilness of the night, or the violence of the storm. Gold can never be hardened into saws or axes; it can neither furnish instruments of manufacture, utensils of agriculture, nor weapons of defence; its only quality is to shine, and the value of its lustre arises from its scarcity.
Throughout the whole circle, both of natural and moral life, recessaries are as iron, and superfluities as gold. What we really need we may readily obtain: so readily, that far the greater part of mankind has, in the wantonness of abune dance, confounded natural with artificial desires, and invented necessities for the sake of employment, because the mind is impatient of inaction, and life is sustained with so little labour, that the tediousness of idle time cannot otherwise be supported.
Thus plenty is the original cause of many of our needs; and even the poverty, which is so frequent and distressful in civilized nations, proceeds often from that change of manners which opulence has produced. Nature makes us poor only when we want necessaries, but custom gives the name of poverty to the want of supersluities.
When Socrates passed through shops of toys and ornaments, he cried out, “How many things are here which I do not need !” And the same exclamation may every man make who surveys the common accommodations of life.
Superfluity and difficulty begin together. To dress food for the stomach is easy; the art is, to irritate the palate when the stomach is sufficed. A rude hand may build walls, form roofs, and lay floors, and provide all that warmth and security require; we only call the nicer artificers to carve the cornice, or to paint the ceilings. Such dress as may enable the body to endure the different seasons, the most unenlightened nations have been able to procure ; but the work of science begins in the ambition of distinction, in variations of fashion, and emulation of elegance. Corn grows with easy culture; the gardener's experiments are only employed to exalt the flavours of fruits, and brighten the colours of flowers.
Even of knowledge, those parts are most easy which are generally necessary. The intercourse of society is maintained without the elegances of language. Figures, criticisms, and refinements, are the work of those whom idleness makes weary of themselves. The commerce of the world is carried on by easy methods of computation. Subtility and study are required only when questions are invented merely to puzzle, and calculations are extended to show the skill of the calculator. The light of the sun is equally beneficial to him whose eyes tell him that it moves, and to him whose reason persuades him that it stands still; and plants grow with the same luxuriance, whether we suppose earth or water the parent of vegetation.
If we raise our thoughts to nobler inquiries, we shall still find facility concurring with usefulness. No man need stay to be virtuous till the moralists have determined the essence of virtue ; our duty is made apparent by its proximate consequences, though the general and ultimate reason should never be discovered. Religion may regulate the life of him to whom the Scotists and Thomists are alike unknown ; and the assertors of fate and free will, however different in their talk, agree to act in the same manner.
It is not my intention to depreciate the politer arts or abstruser studies. That curiosity which always succeeds ease and plenty was undoubtedly given as a proof of capacity which our present state is not able to fill, as a preparative for some better mode of existence, which shall furnish employment for the whole soul, and where pleasure shall be adcquate to our powers of fruition. In the mean time, let us gratefully acknowledge that goodness which grants us ease at a cheap rate, which changes the seasons where the nature of heat and cold has not been yet examined, and gives the vicissitudes of day and night to those who never marked the tropics, or numbered the constellations.
No. 38. SATURDAY, January 6, 1759. Since the publication of the letter concerning the condition of those who are confined in gaols by their creditors, an inquiry is said to have been made, by which it appears that more than *twenty thousand are at this time prisoners for debt.
We often look with indifference on the successive parts of that, which, if the whole were seen together, would shake us with emotion. A debtor is dragged to prison, pitied for a moment, and then forgotten; another follows him, and is lost alike in the caverns of oblivion ; but when the whole mass of calamity rises up at once, when twenty thousand reasonable beings are heard all groaning in unnecessary misery, not by the infirmity of nature, but the mistake or negligence of policy, who can forbear to pity and lament, to wonder and abhor?
There is here no need of declamatory vehemence; we live in an age of commerce and computation ; let us therefore coolly inquire what is the sum of evil which the imprisonment of debtors brings upon our country.
It seems to be the opinion of the later computists, that the inhabitants of England do not exceed six millions, of which twenty thousand is the three-hundredth part. What shall we say of the humanity or the wisdom of a nation, that voluntarily sacrifices one in every three hundred to lingering destruction !
The misfortunes of an individual do not extend their influence to many; yet, if we consider the effects of consanguinity and friendship, and the general reciprocation of wants and benefits, which make one man dear or necessary to another, it may reasonably be supposed, that every man languishing in prison gives trouble of some kind to two others who love or need him. By this multiplication of misery we see distress extended to the hundredth part of the whole society.
If we estimate at a shilling a day what is lost by the inaction and consumed in the support of each man thus chained down to involuntary idleness, the public loss will rise in one
This number was at that time confidently published; but the author has since found reason to question the calculation.